Our last day on Arran began with a visit to Brodick Castle. The current red sandstone building dates from the 19th century with some 13th century remains. It is said that a fort stood on the site from the 5th century and the numerous conflicts and wars since then have led to damage, demolition and rebuilding. The castle was given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1958 and sits amidst gardens and a country park which includes the mountain Goatfell. At the time of our visit the castle itself was under renovation and not due to re-open again until spring 2019. The gardens are open, so we contented ourselves with exploring them. At first it did not look as if this would be a very peaceful experience as the lawns were being mowed and a tree being cut down with chain saws. Fortunately, this did not last too long. Below the terrace that the castle sits on is a walled garden which was built in 1817.
George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward were plant hunters and some of the plants they brought back from their expeditions are in the gardens at Brodick: there is a Plant Hunters path through some of them. Some are rhododendrons. I had always been familiar with many of them in gardens and the escapees that are in the Scottish countryside and assumed that they were all large bushes. The first time I went to India in 2009 and saw rhododendron trees in the Western Ghats I was amazed. There is at least one such tree here, but it was not quite in flower yet. Other plants were flowering:
Towards the bottom of the garden, overlooking the road and the sea is the only remaining Bavarian summerhouse of several that used to be on the site. James remarked that it looked like something from ‘The Hobbit’. Inside the walls and ceiling were decorated with thousands of pine cones.
One recent construction is a large adventure play area which the person on reception told us was not just for children. There is also a red squirrel hide. They are not native to Arran but were introduced and as there are no grey squirrels on the island, they have done well. They do tend to feed in the early morning and in the evening, so it is less likely that they will be seen at this time of year during the opening hours. There are lots of birds and we spotted this swallow near a nest in a summer house.
Some of the information boards had an interesting approach to history. One described all the conflicts the castle had been involved in and went on to say that the 18th and 19th centuries were peaceful times. I do not think that the people who lost their homes and farms or were forced to emigrate to Canada or move to Glasgow during the enclosures and clearances that the Dukes of Hamilton initiated with would regard it as a peaceful time. There was a dispute in 2017 about a display in the Arran Heritage Museum which was reported in the National newspaper. A tour guide felt that describing this as ‘an agricultural revolution’ was not appropriate or accurate but the museum did not change the display. We did not manage a trip to the museum on this visit.
Back in the town, I visited Books and Cards which in addition to these, stocks other stationery supplies . It has books and maps on Arran and Scotland, fiction, non-fiction and a good children’s section. I picked up Thorbjörn Campbell’s Arran: a history, the Rucksack Reader for the coastal walk and another book on walking. I am always happy to support an independent bookshop. Our time on Arran is coming to an end and tomorrow we will be back on the boat to Ardrossan.
Our tour of the south of the island began by heading south out of Brodick. The first halt was at a viewpoint looking back towards the mountains.
From left to right they are: Beinn Nuis, Beinn Tarsuinn, Beinn A’ Chliabhain, A Chir, Glenshant Hill, Cir Mhor, Casteal Abhail, Goat Fell, Mullach Buidhe, Meall Breac, Am Binnein. Whiting Bay has a long beach, views of the southern end of Holy Island and the Arran Art Gallery. Just at the south end of the beach is Glenashdale. Glenashdale Falls are reached via a track that runs through waterside deciduous woodland with bluebells and wild garlic which reminded me of the similar woods on the south face of the Ochil hills that I used to spend time in as a child. There are several properties towards the bottom of the path. The last of these looked as if it might be occupied by a hoarder given the amount of stuff piled up outside the building. This truck had obviously not moved for many years.
The higher slopes are coniferous forest and late in the day you might see red squirrels.
Having reached the waterfall,
there are options for the return. We chose to descend via the Giants Graves. The route is on a forest road until you reach the graves. They are two of more than 20 Neolithic chambered cairns on Arran. They were excavated in the 1960s and some of the stones have been removed. This often happened at cairns when stones were needed for building as it was easier than getting them from the quarries when they were operating.
The wealth of archeology in Arran reminds me that when our son was young, we had had several trips in succession to the Western Isles, Cornwall and West Cork, all of which have neolithic sites. The next trip was to Brittany where Carnac is a major site. This triggered a cry of ‘Not more old stones!’ from our son. On this trip we continued to follow the minor road along the coast to Kildonan which has a sandy beach with views to Pladda and the Ailsa Craig. There is a campsite and a hotel, both of which look appealing places to stay.
Returning to Lamlash via the Ross Road, (built in 1821-22) we passed another Buddhist retreat in the middle of the hills: the Samye Dechen Shing Retreat Centre. It occupies the former Glenscorrodale Farm, near the head of Glen Scorrodale. The farm was gifted to the Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Monastery and Tibetan Centre in 1994 by the owner and converted to a retreat centre ten years later. Its name means “the blissful place”, and it offers men-only on long-term retreats of up to three years (women-only retreats are available at the centre on Holy Island). A closed retreat was underway when we passed by.
There are more ruined homes and farms in the southern part of Arran than the north. Leases for the farms after the first round of enclosures were not renewed and the homes were cleared to make room for sheep. Many of the people emigrated to eastern Canada. Another sad episode in the history of this island. On the second day we were back on the String Road, planned by Thomas Telford and completed by 1817. We passed through Shiskine where friends used to live and on to Blackwaterfoot which has a magnificent sandy beach stretching out to the cliffs at Drumadoon Point.
While James was stocking up at the butcher, I was swan watching. This one was having a siesta by the river:
while his mate was sitting on the nest on the other side of the bridge. After a beach walk, we continued up the coast to the forest where a circular walk goes through the spruce plantation, down to the coast to the King’s Cave. After a picnic at a table where an artist started setting to paint as we left, we started the three mile circuit. King’s Cave is one of several which penetrate the sandstone cliffs up to 100 feet. It is said by some to have hidden Robert Bruce when he visited Arran in 1307 during his campaign for the Scottish Throne (although this is disputed). The information board at the car park said that the current name was modern, as two hundred years ago it was known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’. There are carvings on the walls, but the gate was locked on our visit. The carvings suggest that is has been in use for at least two thousand years as it has early Christian symbols and may have been used by a hermit but also there are also earlier ones, the meaning of which is unknown.
The walk returns along the end of the forest with views over the surrounding area. There were gulls nesting and we watched a gannet diving. There are hut circles marked on the map but we could not see them through the trees and walls.
Arran is a great place for walking. The coast path is 60 miles long (only 11 more than the circumference of the island) and is one we might do. There are mountain walks, and short walks of all sorts, to suit everyone.
Our exploration of the north of the island began by taking the road at the foot of Glen Rosa; the B880 known as ‘The String’. I have still not managed to track down how or why it acquired that name. It crosses the moors and divides – we took the road to Machrie, our first stop. Humans have lived on Machrie Moor for 3.500 years and farmed there until climate change made this impossible. Arran has numerous archaeological sites, but this is perhaps the most well-known and is also an excuse for a walk. The obvious remains are six stone circles of granite boulders and sandstone pillars but not all of the area has been excavated and there are other remains. If there are any concerns about the condition of the remains you are encouraged to send a photograph to the researchers: details on signs at the site. A track leads to them from the car park. It is just under three miles there and back and round all the stones. The first circle you come to is Moss Farm Road stone circle which is actually a cairn. The farm road used to run right over the centre.
Further on, near the derelict farm, are more circles with views over the surrounding countryside and the mountains. At one point we spotted a curlew in the distance.
Back in the car and after topping up the caffeine levels at the Golf Club Tearoom in Machrie, we continued north up the coast, spotting a seal and a rock full of shags en route.
By the time we reached Catacol, it had started to rain. Many people stop here to admire the row of cottages known as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and they are depicted on many Arran postcards. Unfortunately, theirs is not a happy history. They were erected by the Duke of Hamilton in the 19th century to house the crofters who were cleared from Catacol Glen. It seemed appropriate that it was still grey when we arrived in Lochranza.
We visited visit the castle and spotted some red deer in a derelict garden. James had to make a pilgrimage to the distillery which was opened in 1995 and is definitely on the tourist map with coaches arriving and leaving during the short time we were there.
As we reached Corrie with its sandstone coastline, I went looking for something I had read about in The Scotsman last year: The Bath of Arran. It is carved out of the rock and dates from 1835. A Doctor McCredy who lived on Arran (but was originally from the mainland) is said to have used it to cure his patients with saltwater therapy, having been told it made you live longer. The bath is about 12ft long by 5ft wide and 5ft deep and could accommodate several patients at any one time.
It fills up daily by the tide and has man-made steps down into it. Apparently, some tourists have tried it, but we were not tempted. There is a video on YouTube of some swans enjoying it. I followed the instructions in the article: go to the southern part of the village: opposite the house with red railings stop in the passing place and drop down to the shore to your right. It was then time to head back to the cottage to relax and then enjoy our evening meal at a restaurant in Brodick
Our destination today was Holy Island which lies off the eastern side of Arran. It was originally called ‘Inis Shroin’ which means ‘Island of the water spirit’. After Saint Molaise (566-640) who was born in Ireland and raised in Scotland, lived on the island as a hermit the name was changed to ‘Eilean Molaise’ or Molaise’s Island. It is now owned by the Samyé Ling Buddhist Community who belong to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. They bought it from the previous private owner in 1992. There are several settlements on the island: the Centre for World Peace and Health, founded by Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, is on the north of the island, near the pier. This is a residential centre for courses and retreats. They are trying to live lightly on the land with solar water heating, a reed-bed sewage treatment system and they are talking about developing wind-powered electricity. They also have an organic garden which produces some of their food. More people now live on the island, the population having risen from 13 in 2001 to 31 in 2011.The ferry goes from the old pier in Lamlash, the first at 10am. One of the guys is Jim, originally from Sheffield who tried to inject some humour into the proceedings. There was only ourselves and one other couple on the first boat for the 15-minute journey. Sometimes on of the community will greet visitors but a retreat was on so that did not happen and the tea room was closed. We did talk to the volunteer who was renovating the stupas.
On the southern end of the island lives a community of nuns who are undertaking three-year retreats and a retreat centre for women. Much of the island is a nature reserve so there is no footpath on the eastern coast. They are re-planting native trees including the rare Arran Rock Whitebeam, a Sorbus. We walked the footpath which runs along the west coast of the island. It starts on the lawn and passes a wood has been planted as a memorial to the Dunblane massacre.
The cave Molaise lived in is still there, a little wet when we visited. There are some Viking runes visible inside.
A nearby well is said to have healing properties. There is an advisory notice next to a sheep skull, stating that the water does not meet EU standards and should not be drunk.
It is thought that a monastery was established on the island in the 1200s or 1300s. Little trace of it now remains, nor of anyone else who lived there before the clearances and enclosures.
The island has flocks of Soay sheep which were grazing along the path
and Eriskay ponies and Sannex goats which we only saw in the distance.
The southern end of the path terminates at Pillar Rock Lighthouse, a Stevenson lighthouse erected in 1904.
We walked back to the pier, enjoying the views,
and spotting a shag and a seal.
Scotland’s first ‘No Take Zone’ was in Lamlash Bay in 2008. This prohibits the taking of sea fish and shellfish with the hope of re-generating the sea-bed. The northern end of the island has the highest concentration of birds nesting on the shore, so I hope this means it is working. As our ferry was not due to leave until 2pm, I had a walk around the north end where Common Gulls were nesting on the beach,
as were Oystercatchers and a lone swan. All too soon it was time to head back to the pier and take the boat back to Lamlash.
James had never seen the Irish Rugby team play at home so Friday morning saw us on an early train to Holyhead under blue skies and sunshine. I was trying to remember whether I had ever been west of Chester by train as we are usually driving to Anglesey to visit friends or to take the ferry to Ireland. The railway soon meets the coast and the tide was out on the Dee Estuary so lots of birds were feeding on the sand but we sped fast too quickly to identify many. At Holyhead there is a seamless transition from the train to the ferry terminal which is at the end of the platforms. It is also a short walk over a modern bridge to to the town centre.
I had hoped that as we were sailing west and sunset was around an hour before we were due to arrive in Dublin, that I might get some sunset shots but the advancing weather front brought dense cloud which put paid to that idea. Taxis were in short supply at the port despite two ferries arriving within a short time but one arrived eventually and we were soon ensconced in our quayside hotel. That evening we met some friends from Dublin whom we had not seen for several years and returned to the Winding Stair Restaurant. I have still not managed to be there when the bookshop on the ground floor is open. On Saturday morning we walked along the quayside and crossed the river to Trinity College. Several hungry gulls were looking hopefully at passers-by.
Rowan Gillespie’s 1997 sculpture ‘Famine’ also stands by the river.
Our destination that morning was the Book of Kells exhibition which was over-booked on our last visit. Near the college we passed a pub which had been open since 7am. I later learnt that this was originally to serve the market traders. There was no market that day but several people inside. There is an explanatory exhibition about the Books of Kells, Armagh and Durrow, the old manuscripts on display and then you can visit the old college library.
It is a fabulous building, housing around 20,000 of the library’s oldest books and lined with marble busts. On our visit there was also a display of ephemera relating to Oscar Wilde. There is Ireland’s oldest harp which dates from the 15th century and a copy of the 1916 proclamation of the Irish Republic. The rest of Saturday was spent meeting up with friends and enjoying the rugby match which Ireland won. We had planned to spend Sunday morning visiting a few more places in the city in a leisurely fashion before catching an afternoon boat back to Holyhead. However, a text received during dinner changed our plans as the afternoon ‘swift boat’ was cancelled due to bad weather and we had to take the early morning one. Some time ago, catamarans were introduced on several of the Irish Sea routes to reduce the time of the crossings. However, their movement meant that they were rapidly dubbed ‘the vomit comet’ and were also said to create waves big enough to wash fishermen off the walls of Dun Laoghaire which was the port ferries from the UK previously came into. As we boarded the ferry, the police were escorting an Asian man onto the boat. However we later saw him wandering around unescorted and he disembarked with the rest of us. I hope that they had not had to protect him from harassment. I read today that hate crime rates have now overtaken sectarian crime rates in Northern Ireland but I do not know if this is the case in the Republic. In addition to cancelled boats we also had cancelled trains. The person in the rail ticket office in Holyhead did not seem to know which were running and which were not. The first train was a relatively new, warm Arriva train which only took us as far as Llandudno Junction but with views of the mountains in Snowdonia with a dusting of snow. After that we were squashed onto a bus to Chester and then a very full Virgin train home, determined to make our next visit somewhat longer.
I have to confess, we have not walked the 24 miles of the Water of Leith from the source in the Pentland Hills, nor the 12 plus miles of the Water of Leith Walkway from Balerno to Leith. We did not have time to complete the full length of the Walkway so chose to walk to Leith from the point nearest to us.
As soon as we had returned from Ireland, friends were asking why I was not in Edinburgh enjoying the Fringe. We did come up in the middle of the month as we had some work which needed to be carried out on the flat and had selected a few samples of comedy, music and photography from the Fringe to enjoy as well. Some sensible residents stay away completely as getting around is more difficult and takes longer if you have to pass through the main tourist areas; fending off the flyers constantly shoved in your face. After enjoying Dan Willis, a UK comedian living in Australia presenting a ‘Whinging Pom’s Guide’ to the country, Ed Byrne, the Edinburgh Photographic Society’s Annual Exhibition and a great night with Lorna Reid at the Jazz Club, we were ready for a change of scene. We have walked a few sections of the Walkway in the past but fancied a bigger chunk today. It is a two mile walk to our nearest section and includes a bit of the Union Canal.
The Visitors’ Centre is at Slateford just next to where the river flows under the aqueduct carrying the Union canal. We had a coffee before hitting the trail just under the aqueduct where a sign told us it was seven miles to Leith.
There are currently a few diversions due to path closures. There has been a landslip and one section has been closed for six months while this is investigated and decisions made about action. Other sections are closed due to works on the Flood Prevention Scheme. Back on the path we enjoyed the greenery including trees and wildflowers but also spotted large clusters of an introduced problem plant: Himalayan Balsam. It is an annual but produces 800 seeds per year which are propelled huge distances and can be carried by water. It out-competes native flora and is very difficult to eradicate.
Other places have street art.
We passed the Balgreen Community Garden with raised beds made from sleepers like my own and an invertebrate hotel.
There are numerous places along the way where you can join or leave the Walkway and it connects with some of the cycle routes. Occasionally the path leaves the riverside for a short stretch for example, in the Dean Village.
It passes St Bernard’s Well, built on the site of an spring and which is open on Sundays in August. Here is an interior shot I took a couple of years ago:
Before we reached Leith we came across a family of swans having a grooming session. The swan’s partner was watching nearby.
After a succession of signs all saying Leith was 1¾ miles, we eventually reached The Shore. There is a Turkish Cafe and a pub, Salvation ready to restore you and for fine dining, Restaurant Martin Wishart is a little further along. After some refreshments it was time to catch the bus home. With all the diversions we had in fact clocked up 12 miles.
We spent our last morning in the south exploring Kilkenny and Carlow before dropping our friends off at Dublin airport and heading north to spend a few days with relatives in North Antrim. Kilkenny has a lot of history with a medieval mile starting at the castle. The castle dates from 1192 having been constructed on the site of an earlier wooden structure but has been remodelled several times, most recently by the Butler family.
We did not tour inside but walked around the park surrounding the castle and the garden around the Dower House.
The park was busy with the Saturday Fun Run so we walked over to the Castle Yard which hosts the Design Centre and several craft studios. One display in the Design Centre Gallery called ‘Lustre’ was of jewellery produced by students based on the Faberge egg concept. They explored this theme and produce their own works encased in the egg. I also looked at some copper plate etchings as this is something I have planned to do at some point.
We looked in at some of the studios and found some ceramics we liked. After a coffee in the restaurant upstairs it was time to leave the tourists gathering outside the castle and return to the hotel for a cocktail (non-drivers only) and to digest the Irish Times before beginning our drive northeast to Carlow.
This is another town I had visited many years ago while working but I could remember little about it. Just as we were getting out of the car I met an elderly gentleman walking up the hill who paused just to take a breath. He told me that he was 88 and knew everything that there was to know about Carlow. He was keen to tell me that the river used to be bigger and have ‘really big’ boats on it. Now rowing seems to be the main waterborne activity. We walked over to the ruined castle
and then along the river path to the Millennium Bridge. Swans and a rook were keen to befriend us in case we had any food for them.
In the park ‘Bridging’ an installation containing works by teenagers on a 14-week project exploring life as a teenager in Carlow was on display.
This is one of the panels.
Carlow does have an art institute and walking back to the car, we passed some street art entitled ‘Wall R Us: is it a wall or is it us?’.
Having dropped our friends off at the airport we continued on the motorway to the border. Just north of Dublin we noted that we had driven 700 miles on this trip so far. There were still tractors on the motorway and the six-lane road it becomes across the border. Summer seemed to be ending as we made our way to North Antrim in rain. Fortunately this did not last and the sun and blue skies returned for the remainder of our trip.